COMMENTARY: New strategy needed for defeating ISIS

As we commemorate the 14th annual remembrance of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against America, it is appropriate to critique the Obama administration’s strategy to defeat the terrorist group known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Indeed, the White House’s fecklessness has already resulted in two different approaches, neither of which resulted in sustained positive gains against the menace.

The initial strategy for confronting ISIS was to treat them as a subdivision of al-Qaida. However, that approach ignored important distinctions between the terrorist groups. For al-Qaida, achieving support at the local level was a precondition of wider attacks. But ISIS eschewed that orientation in favor of acquiring and controlling large segments of territory together with pilfering the resources found there.

While both groups have kidnapped Westerners for ransom, ISIS has done so in a more visible manner and has not hesitated to employ barbaric methods of execution.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

After much scrutiny over its approach, the Obama administration announced a second strategy for degrading ISIS about a year ago. This approach included three individual actions: utilizing drone strikes to kill suspected ISIS operatives; launching U.S.-led Special Forces operations; and training local forces to take the fight directly to ISIS (government troops in Iraq; rebel troops in Syria).

Pertaining to the first area above, the Obama White House has launched a plethora of attacks against ISIS via drone, with a moderate level of success. The U.S. is now being helped by other nations which have approved drone strikes against ISIS in Syria, including Britain.

Due to the reticence about putting American “boots on the ground” again in large numbers in Iraq or expanding an American ground presence in Syria, the Special Forces route is a logical, if always perilous, alternative, though the few limited operations to date make it difficult to judge effectiveness.

On the tactic of training indigenous forces to battle ISIS, the United States has fallen significantly short, so much so that the Obama team recently announced a change in direction. The new approach will focus on dropping large numbers of fighters into safe zones, improving combat skills of fighters, and providing better intelligence, according to administration officials.

Given the Obama White House’s reset on fighting ISIS, the U.S. should likewise consider highlighting and holding to account ISIS’s purposeful destruction of historic buildings, monuments, and architecture. While ISIS has been the target of international scorn for this despicable behavior — the U.S., U.N. and other international organizations have passed resolutions condemning such actions — labeling such desecration as a crime against humanity should mean a more serious punishment for the offenders if captured.

If the civilized world permits destruction of many of mankind’s greatest symbols, it is permitting history itself to disappear.

Inexcusably, the U.S. Congress has neglected to act on President Barack Obama’s request for explicit authorization to fight ISIS. At present, the administration is relying on a 2001 law granting permission to fight al-Qaida. Though a formal declaration of war may be too much to hope for — the last one issued was for World War II — it behooves Congress to fulfill its obligation in such instances, meaning an explicit vote for the operation consistent with existing laws like the War Powers Act. The administration’s critics cannot have it both ways.

The goal of degrading and destroying ISIS shares similar shortcomings with any strategy meant to confront terrorism: it won’t be quick or pretty. But as America adapts to the new method of engaging in such conflicts, it continues to practice the basic lesson learned from 9-11: fighting back.

Editor’s note: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Political Science and Law Studies director at Delaware State University. He has taught and published extensively on American military history and served as DSU’s ROTC director from 1993 through 1999.

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